Knoxville’s Hospitality Businesses and Patrons Build Community During Pandemic

by Rebekah Goode
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Thank you notes are seen on a board at A Dopo, inside the downtown Knoxville restaurant
Stefanie Benjamin

Stefanie Benjamin

COVID-19 forced local hospitality businesses to find innovative ways to stay afloat during these challenging times. As a professor of tourism studies at the University of Tennessee and co-director for Tourism RESET, I, along with PhD candidate Sarah Frankel, highlighted downtown Knoxville hospitality businesses that found creative ways to assist our community. Funded by UT’s Research Development Academy, we interviewed hospitality business owners to understand their lived “new normal.”

Brian Strutz, owner of A Dopo Pizza and a UTK alumnus, shared how essential the community has been, “The community helped us by constantly talking about us to their friends and family and continuing to support us through takeout. That’s the community responding by saying, ‘Hey, we support you and we don’t want you to fail.'” His restaurant also purchases higher-priced products to support local farmers. “We don’t list the farmers on our menu because they change regularly. We don’t want to exploit that — we just simply do it. We want the farmers to know we’re buying from them.”

Brian Strutz of A Dopo, poses for a photo in the restaurant, outside of downtown Knoxville, Wednesday, May 20, 2020.Brian Strutz of A Dopo, poses for a photo in the restaurant, outside of downtown Knoxville, Wednesday, May 20, 2020.

Brian Strutz, owner of A Dopo Pizza

Other businesses worked to bring some laughter to the new normal. Dale Mackey, owner of the Central Collective, persevered as she hosted virtual events like a First Friday art show and an Easter egg hunt featuring a human claw machine. She also worked to support local artisans, “We thought we could easily support local makers by pivoting from our public mystery event, ‘Good Sport Night,’ to launching a mystery surprise box filled with things made by local makers … just to stay connected and have fun during a dark time.”

Everybody is lifted up

The ideology of supporting local economies continues to be part of the hospitality philosophy of authentic sustainability. As Jesse Newmister, owner of Tako Taco and Kaizen, said, “The thing with community and local economies is that the more you prop up your local economy, the stronger your local economy will be. Spending money at local restaurants spreads out to servers and owners. Then we spend it on each other and that lifts everybody up.”

The impact of COVID-19 has magnified the importance of supporting local economies, and certain polices have been redesigned. A pandemic-related executive order made by Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee in March included a provision allowing restaurants to sell alcohol as takeout without having to collect the 15% sales tax. Margaret Stolfi, general manager of the Mill & Mine and partners with Newmister, commented that Tako Taco’s cocktails are more popular than their beer and wine sales, “Customers would rather just have somebody make it for them, and our pre-made cocktails provide that ease.”  The issue though, is complicated. While eliminating the tax is great for restaurants, a portion of the tax supports Knox County Schools. Helping change this tax law is part of Strutz’s mission to redesign some policies to holistically support the community while simultaneously helping restaurants.

How to support local businesses

Sarah Frankel

Sarah Frankel

As we continue our research, here are tips to support our local businesses:

  • Buy local. Purchase products and gift cards designed and produced by local farmers, artisans and community partners. You will not only reduce your carbon footprint and receive products quicker, but also support local jobs.
  • Support minority-owned establishments. This group, which owns around 1 million small businesses in the United States, contributes much-needed diversity to the business landscape. Be intentional about shopping at businesses owned by Black, Latino and Indigenous people, those with disabilities and members of the LGTBQ+ community.
  • Be flexible and generous. Have an understanding that the service you were used to before COVID-19 may look and feel different. Tip well and leave positive reviews through social media and word of mouth. You can also contribute to community foundations like the Knoxville Service Industry Relief Fund.

The impact of COVID-19 on our local hospitality industry has created space for a reset and the potential of creating new policies that advocate for equitable landscapes. We can all take action to help support their work, which will affect our community in the years to come.

K Brew CEO Pierce LaMacchia tapes an "X" on the floor to mark proper social distancing inside the coffee shop’s West Hills location

K Brew CEO Pierce LaMacchia tapes an “X” on the floor to mark proper social distancing inside the coffee shop

Stefanie Benjamin is an assistant professor of Retail, Hospitality, and Tourism Management at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and co-director for Tourism RESET. Sarah Frankel is a Retail, Hospitality, and Tourism Management PhD candidate at UT. 

This article was originally published on August 29, 2020. Photos of local businesses and business owners by Knoxville News Sentinel.

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